Water dripped from the ceiling, as agonizing groans and obscure mutters plagued the prison. It was dark and grimy inside, from weeks of poor maintenance.
This was just one of the prisons of the Imperial Palace, but it was the worst one. There were a total of no more than three cells inside. The darkness and incessant dripping of water droplets were enough to drive someone insane.
When Li Xueyue stepped down the staircase, her nose instantly crinkled. The stench in here was horrendous. It was pungent and smelled of human waste.
Her nose stung and even her eyes burned a bit. It was difficult not to recoil, especially when she saw the questionable burgundy and yellow stains on the pale, grey stone walls.
It was pitch-black down here, except for the lanterns that Yu Zhen had ordered to be placed prior to their arrival.
"Would you like a scented veil?" Yu Zhen quietly asked her, gesturing to her face. "To cover your nose."
Li Xueyue dropped her hands. She shook her head and forced a smile. "No, that's alright."
Li Xueyue didn't want to appear weak. He walked just fine, and didn't even flinch at the stench. She could not help but wonder what type of life he had lived to be alright with this. Did the battlefield desensitize him?
Yu Zhen raised a brow. "Are you certain?"
Li Xueyue responded with a nod.
Seeing as she didn't voice her concerns, Yu Zhen did not say anything else. He placed his hand behind her back and guided her down the prison.
It was a short walk. Once they turned a corner and down another short hallway, they stopped before a daunting door of steel with a small window at the top.
"When no one comes here, the lanterns are not lit, which leaves this place in pitch darkness," Yu Zhen whispered to her so that only she could hear.
Li Xueyue's heart raced at his words. It was psychological torture. To see nothing, not even your hands, and to hear nothing but water droplets, it would be enough to make a grown man insane. Forced to be faced with nothing but the demons of your own thoughts, this place could crack even the most stable of brains.
"I see," was her only response.
Yu Zhen picked up one of the lanterns beside his feet. He handed it to her and picked up another one for himself. It would be the only way that they'd be able to see.
Quietly, he slipped out a key from his pocket.
"You have to prepare yourself," Yu Zhen told her.
She gave him a curt nod. "I will be fine."
It was the truth. Li Xueyue had seen what he was capable of. What happened in the tent behind the Li Manor was unforgettable.
She would never forget the faces of the Bai Family. From the haunted Viscount Bai Sheng to the scarred Bai Tianai, there was not much else in this world that would scare her. She had seen her tormentors suffer horrendously.
Her eyes were no longer innocent and naive.
Li Xueyue preferred it that way.
Despite that, her stomach twisted and churned, just like Yu Zhen's key. The door opened with a creak. It took a single push from him to swing the heavy, metal door open.
"S-save me!" a voice shrieked, as chains rattled.
Li Xueyue stiffened at the noise. It did not sound human.
"S-s-spare m-me!" he sobbed out, as the chains rattled again. They clinked with each movement, like an ominous sound of a knife being polished. And perhaps, that was how it sounded in his ears.
Li Xueyue forced herself to keep calm. Her hand was trembling and she had to bite down on her tongue. She could not even take a deep breath to clear her thoughts.
Gently, Yu Zhen pulled her into the room. He was the first to lift the lantern, revealing the merchant.
Her heart had never dropped so fast. Her eyes widened in surprise. Marquis Qin was chained by his collar, like a rabid dog. He was dressed in the clothes from yesterday, except, there was dried up blood everywhere, and rips and tears on them.
There were visible whip marks all over his skin. The wounds had stopped bleeding, but when he moved, the wounds would reopen. His arms were poorly bandaged, revealing nubs of a hand.
"It's not for the faint of heart," Yu Zhen finally admitted. But he didn't even blink.
In war, he had seen much worse. He recalled a moment when a group of soldiers managed by another General was captured by the enemies.
By the time these soldiers were rescued from the enemy prison, the men were barely alive. Even after being rescued, they begged to die, pleaded to be put out of their misery, and when rejected, those men killed themselves in the most brutal way possible.
"W-why are you doing t-t-this to me!" Marquis Qin sobbed out. He was kneeling on the ground, with his arms limp beside him.
Li Xueyue's eyes turned cold. Why? He had the audacity to ask this question when he knew of her identity? He dared to see the good in his molestation?
"P-Princess!" he cried out, as visible relief flashed upon his haunted expression.
Marquis Qin tried to rush towards her, but was yanked back by the chains. He resembled a disobedient dog being forced into submission as he pulled his neck to the side, only for the chains to constrict him.
"He won't be able to lift a hand or hurt you," Yu Zhen informed her in a low and controlled voice. She had nothing to fear. He made certain of that.
"I'd like to have a private conversation with him."
Yu Zhen's head snapped to her. He had expected as much. But he couldn't picture it until now. She would be standing in this prison cell, all alone, with the Marquis. The man was thoroughly searched for any concealed weapons, and only a knife was found. It was taken as evidence to further incriminate the Marquis.
"I will be down the hall," Yu Zhen said. "I will be able to see you back, but not within an earshot of your conversation."
Yu Zhen cast her glance. She had a nonchalant look on her features, but he knew better. Her eyes were slightly wider, and her fingers had tightened on the lantern. With heavy reluctance, he patted her back and left.
Once it was just Li Xueyue and the Marquis, a short silence fell over them. She took a step forward to examine him better, but the Marquis had other plans.
"P-Princess, s-save m-m-me please!" he cried out in vain, bowing his head down to her.
Before she could even speak, he quickly added on. "I-I know the truth, b-but if you let me l-live, then I-I swear I-I will t-take it to the grave!"
Li Xueyue's face went rigid. "That's alright," she suddenly said.
Marquis Qin lifted his head. Hope shimmered on his battered face, filled with bruises. It was difficult to see his true expression, especially with his black eyes, and a scar running down his cheek.
"You can take it to the grave right now."
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